The Inscrutable Blackberry

It’s been a great year for blackberries. I have half a dozen bushes that usually produce a few quarts but ths year they’ve outdone themselves: I have 6 quarts in the freezer and picked another quart today – and that’s not counting the ones that Ben and Eli ate when they were here last week.

I have also stashed away half a dozen quarts of wild blackberries. Why then, with all that production of the far larger and juicier cultivated berries, have I taken the time to pick wild blackberries? They’re smaller and seedier and not neatly arranged against the stone wall alongside the driveway. They grow here and there along the road and into the woods and don’t mind standing in the midst of a patch of poison ivy.

Oddest of all, they defy all logic simply by being black. A berry’s object in life is to attract the attention of a bird or squirrel or chipmunk and get itself eaten so that it will be neatly excreted some distance away and create a new blackberry bush. To attract attention these predators, most berries (and flowers and fruit) are color coded. Raspberries are red, blueberries are blue, apples in apple trees are crimson in hue.

But blackberries are black. Stranger than that, they are red and highly visible when immature. Unripe blackberries are easy to find but who would want one? Too tart to the taste, if you eat one in error, you will know you bit the wrong berry. But then they turn black and become all but invisible in the dappled shade that blackberry bushes call home. Result? The birds and beast don’t notice them for quite a while. Veteran blackberry pickers have noticed that in the early season there are lots of berries to be picked but that when they come back to the same bushes a week later, the birds have been there. Maybe they notice the human pickers and check it out for themselves. So why would evolution give us a berry more likely to be picked by human beings who will not fly off with them or stash them under an oak tree, but, more likely, mash them for the juice to make jelly and toss the seeds into the compost pile? There’s a mystery here that I’ve been contemplating in recent days but I have no profound insights to share. The inscrutable blackberry remains inscrutable.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have been pondering the same problem when she wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
(Aurora Leigh. Book vii.)

I would only note that he who sees and takes off his shoes had better not try to pluck blackberries

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